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Hanging loose in a bureaucracy.

And why not? What other employee in the corporate US has a den instead of an office, a room that is a melange of art, antiques, sculpture, cartoons and bric-a-brac, including a roll-top desk, drawing table and a wonderfully painted chair with wings hanging from the ceiling? Who else could seriously describe their job as, "inviting fellow employees to come out on the thin ice with me." Who else has the job title creative paradox?"

Gordon MacKenzie certainly is one. As the only official creative paradox at Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Mo., he is also perhaps the only creativity consultant in the US who is working to subvert corporate stultification from the inside. His title may be an inside joke, but it is a serious one.

"Large organizations are like giant hairballs," he says, with a characteristic twinkle. Every decision adds another hair. There is existence but no life in a hairball. You have to expend creative energy to avoid getting all tangled up."

When MacKenzie isn't stirring up corporate creativity at Hallmark, he's out on the lecture circuit, using overything from mirth to meditation to put audiences as large as several hundred people into a kind of surreal, creative trance.

After which he asks the audience to write a poem based on a randomly chosen noun and adjective. The brave ones volunteer to read their creations aloud. Many of the Poems are amazingly heartfelt and moving.

"Everyone has a masterpiece within him from birth," says MacKenzie afterward. \Wen we are young, society draws pale blue lines, as if your life were a paint-by-numbers kit. The message is: If you stay in the lines your life will be a masterpiece. That's a lie. You have to constantly battle to be nobody but yourself. If you go to your grave without painting your masterpiece, it will not get painted."

MacKenzie is a small man prone to big, hearty laughs, especially after similarly deep and insightful digressions. ("I'm really babbling now," he chides himself.) He also has the somewhat disconcerting habit of occasionally blowing air as he speaks. "I do it to stay in touch and keep from shutting down," he says.

Interviewed at Hallmark, in what he insists on calling mY rOOm," MacKenzie dances around the subject of corporate creativity like a dervish ... reading a poem from "The Awakened Eye" by Frederik Frank ... talking freely about his recOvery from alcoholism ... confiding that it took him 20 years to find the courage to do a pirouette in the hallowed halls of Hallmark,

MacKenzie believes in letting go, having fun, enjoying the "ecstasy of living." As if to prove the point, he happily and without hesitation agreed to pose for the camera while wading in the company reflecting pool.

i wish I had your job," a fellow employee teased as MacKenzie was testing the corporate waters. MacKenzie just flashed a huge grin.

JG: Why are most corporate environments so sterile, so corporate? GM: My guess is it's control. Large organizations feel a deep need to control, and that extends to the physical environment.

JG: Do you think this desire to control is sinister?

GM: No, I think it's just a responsibility to the customer and to shareholders to try and deliver the best possible product. To do that entails a certain need for predictability, and to get that one is often drawn into a need for over, controlling the situation. I understand creativity to be a manifestation of the unconscious. We can't know ahead of time what's going to come up. It seems to me the way around this is to let creativity flow and pick through it to find the things that can be exploited for positive gain. We tend not to do that.

JG: Why?

GM: Our society is threatened by people having too much access to that limitless creativity within our unconscious, because it might raise uncomfortable questions and there is stuff in there that looks insane. Therefore, society discourages creativity in an incredible variety of ways.

JG: This must be a very unusual corporation.

GM: Remarkable.

JG: How do you mesh with the accountants at Hallmark?

GM: I don't think we understand each other. I think a lot of us are reluctant to understand each other. So we mesh with a lack of mutual understanding to a certain degree.

JG: Healthy misunderstanding?

GM: Tolerance. Knowing at some level that we need each other, but wishing that we didn't. (Laugh.)

JG: Tell me about your job at Hallmark. Creative paradox?

GM: I don't have a job description. I'm doing it right now. My job is to put myself out in front of you or whoever and risk to grow. Really to risk and stretch and walk out on some thin ice and say, "I wonder if I can stand here."

I try to do this with workshops and brainstorming sessions where I try to offer some non-ordinary ways for people to get at the limitless resources that they have inside of them. Creativity, more than anything else, is gaining access to what we already have.

JG: Do you think there is a penalty for exhibiting creativity as you do inside a corporation?

GM: Could we say "price" instead of "penalty?" Yes, there's a price, but there's a price for everything. It comes down to what each of us as individuals will honor. How much courage will we find to honor the things that we cherish? If I cherish personal freedom, but I don't have the courage to pay the price of having that freedom ... because there will be a price for it ... then I will live in a kind of frustration, a wimpy world that longs for the freedom but isn't willing to suffer the pain to get it. We can end up wishing our life away. If we can find the courage to confront an issue that is causing chronic dull pain, we can get through and beyond it.

JG: So if out of fear, you wore the business suit to work instead of the T-shirt, you would suffer that dull chronic pain.

GM: Yes, a sense of loss, a little death.

JG: That you weren't being true to yourself?

GM: Yes, not being true to the creative, childlike spirit that is inside me and everyone. Unable, as Frederik Frank, an artist and author, puts it in one of his poems, "to discover one's own little song and dare to sing it in all variations, unsuited as it may be for mass communication." Every time we choose not to sing our own little song, it's a little death.

JG: Do you think the people you meet in corporations are stifled, or unhappy, or do you have any sense of that?

GM: One of the things I have learned from my therapist is not to make judgments about other people's life situation. There's no such thing as "immaculate perception," he says. But I know many working people are shut down, frustrated, and locked in a desperate situation they don't know how to get out of.

JG: In a box?

GM: Building one and having it built. It is a communal effort in which the resident of the box is an active participant.

JG: How do you get in touch with the muse when you're in a hectic business environment where creativity may be viewed as more of a luxury than a priority?

GM: Creativity is an essential, not a luxury. As soon as it's seen as a luxury, it goes to the bottom of the corporation's list of priorities. Ecstasy of living is an essential. I was late for this interview this morning. The reason I was late was because I was with some people and it was working. We were having some authenticity. And there was an energy there that deserved not to be interrupted. I miss airplanes a lot for this reason. So I pay a price.

JG: Discipline ... where does that fit in when tapping into your creativity? There's such a rush today to do what you have to do.

GM: Can I share with you something else I learned in therapy? When you use you talk, you're telling me what I have to do. And we do that too much in our society. When we say you, you, you all the time, somebody else owns it. Vhen are we going to look after ourselves and say I need to do such-and-such, instead of saying you need to do such-and-such? If I can say "I" more, then maybe I will take more responsibility for where I am, for my frustrations, and for the things that are limiting who I can be. But as long as I say you, it's someone else's problem, and I can continue to be a victim, which is not very demanding.

JG: What advice can you offer on helping people become more creative and true to themselves inside an organization?

GM: Learn to let go. Search for every way possible to let go, and find the courage to be yourself. This may mean maintaining a support network ... a group of people you work with with whom you can truly share your deepest fears. People you can be intimate with spiritually and emotionally. People you can trust.

JG: In other words, take off the mask, whether it's physical or mental.

GM: Yes, the change in physical appearance will simply happen on its own when it's ready. I think the dress for success syndrome is superficial manipulation and plays to dishonesty. If I have a need to change the way I express who I am, that change will surface, and I won't need any instruction or hints from any publication or workshop or person.

JG: But appearance is very important, isn't it? If you look at the board of directors of any large company, every one will be wearing a white shirt and dark suit ... even the females.

GM: Sure, but now we're talking about conforming, adapting, and being appropriate ... we're not talking about creativity. If the goal is to reach the board of directors, there will be manipulation, cleverness, skillful politics, right moves, but creativity will not be a primary ingredient. If I set my mind on a reward and focus on that reward, the path to it will not be an authentic path. If I focus on the path, there will be rewards that I would never have dreamed of.

JG: Does this mean one shouldn't have goals?

GM: I hope I haven't said should or shouldn't. I have goals. I've started to write a book on what we're talking about. I want to travel to Morocco. I want to reduce my compulsion to control other people and situations. My goal is to be not attached to outcome.

JG: In other words, just be free form?

GM: Yeah. This has been a delightful interview, thanks in part to your willingness to let go of your questions. I was just reading this book called "Free Play." It's about improvisation. The author talks about somebody going to make a speech. If that person goes to a podium and delivers a written speech, everyone will have the low-energy experience of being read to. But if the speaker will write the speech, go before the group and throw his notes away, everybody knows he is coming from a place that is risky and improvising, but is not unprepared-and the energy will be high. My sense is you've decided to conduct this interview in the latter style. You have come prepared but you have not been shackled by your preparation. I celebrate that.

JG: So if you want to be creative inside a bureaucratic organization, you should .. let go ... you said?

GM: Do I sense you are trying to distill this down to a recipe? I would caution against that. My sense is that this article will not have answers, but will have hints of places to look within oneself. Most of us look for steps one and two. The pitfall in this is that it leads us away from the essence of creativity which is not a how-to process. It's a letting go, a hanging loose.

I will share with you that it took me 20 years before I dared to skip down the halls of Hallmark. "Anticipatory grief " kept me from skipping. I am mindful that I kept myself from it, but I try not to be judgmental of myself.

There's a real difference between mindfulness and judging. judging keeps you from letting go. Instead of judging, how about being mindful of where the employee is, what the employee's magic is, and what the employee's blocks are that are keeping that magic from manifesting itself?

JG: That sounds wonderful if it could happen.

GM: It is happening. Can you imagine a conversation like this, and a writer seriously thinking about writing an article-if in fact you are still seriously thinking about it-10 years ago? Where would you get it published? Maybe the Whole Earth Catalog. But not for a mainstream "legitimate" publication.

No way.

JG: Is this a typical business day?

GM: What is a normal business day? I have ... I wonder what abnormal means .. I want to look it up. I love to look up words in the dictionary. Even though I think I know the language, I don't. Abnormal: "Deviating from the normal, the standard or a type, markedly irregular or unusual." All my days are abnormal.

Isn't it funny that my connotation of abnormal is that it is not OK? So there could be people in this corporation who think I behave in an abnormal way, and they might have a negative connotation of that, as I do.

My job title is creative paradox. Here's a definition of paradox: "A statement contrary to common belief. A statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable, or absurd, but that may actually be true in fact. A statement that is self-contradictory in fact and hence false. Something inconsistent with common experience or having contradictory qualities. A person who is inconsistent or contradictory in character or behavior. The synonyms are: contradiction, enigma, mystery, absurdity, ambiguity."

All of these things are connected to creativity. And this is connected to abnormal, unusual. Wouldn't it be wonderful ... I think it would anyway ... if paradox was recognized as normal? John Gerstner is editor of JD Journal, Deere and Co., Moline, ill.
COPYRIGHT 1991 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:Hallmark Cards creativity consultant Gordon MacKenzie
Author:Gerstner, John
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:interview
Date:Aug 1, 1991
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